Who needs Saratoga Springs? Albany had its own mineral spring before Saratoga became a playground for the rich and famous. And it even became a tourist attraction in its own right – the Mineral Springs Garden. The first intimation of the Capital District’s mineral spring resources was in July 1792, when a spring was discovered across the Hudson from Albany. This location soon hosted mineral baths and a mineral water bottling operation. The village of Bath-on-Hudson took its name from this spring. Regular ferry service was introduced from Albany to Bath to make the spring more accessible. But by 1800, the natural spring seems to have been exhausted. For a long time afterward, its location was marked by Rensselaer’s Mineral Street, but now even that relic is gone.
Albany’s mineral spring begins with beer. The ‘Arch Street Brewery’ of Boyd & McCulloch was the largest in Albany in 1826. Robert Boyd and Hawthorn McCulloch engaged America’s first professional water well driller, Levi Disbrow, to help them in their search for a new water supply. In September of that year, just behind the brewery, on Ferry Street, Mr. Disbrow drilled to a depth of 617 feet without hitting potable water; but he did hit a layer of highly carbonated water with a saline and pungent taste. Later chemical analyses would show it to be very similar in composition to the Congress Spring in Saratoga. Boyd & McCulloch installed a pipe, fitted with a pump, to bring the mineral water up to a cistern. One of the curiosities of the site was that when water was not being pumped up through the pipe, highly flammable gas (probably hydrogen) ascended out of the end of the pump. Although the Albany Mineral Spring water was generally considered inferior to that of Saratoga’s, it being ‘by no means so stimulating and pungent’ as that of the Congress Spring, it was ‘by no means disagreeable,’ and at temperature of 51 degrees Fahrenheit in all seasons, promised patrons, a cool, ‘healthful’ refreshment.
It’s not clear to me whether Boyd & McCulloch ever capitalized on the mineral spring, but in any event, in 1828, after twenty years, the partnership was dissolved and the parcel of land on South Ferry was put up for auction the following year. Not long after, an advertisement in the Albany Argus of May 11, 1829 announced that the Albany Mineral Springs was open ‘for the season,’ from sunrise until 10 pm on weekdays and from sunrise to 8 am and 5 – 9 pm on Sundays. Readers were told that a limited number of season tickets were available from the proprietor (who is not named). The brewery was apparently bought back by Robert Boyd, so that by 1830, the Arch Street Brewery was again owned by Boyd. But an obituary from May 31, 1841 describes one William Hughes who had ‘long occupied’ the Mineral Spring Garden. Was Hughes the proprietor? Or just a manager?
In any event, by 1836, Gordon’s Gazetteer informs tourists to Albany of a mineral spring there ‘surrounded by a handsome garden and much resorted to by citizens and strangers.’ Directories from the time now call it Mineral Spring Garden, giving the address as 58 or 60 Ferry Street (on the same block as the Arch Street Brewery). S. Wilson, in his Albany City Guide of 1844 wrote “[Gentlemen] might then visit the Mineral Springs in Ferry Street, so deservedly celebrated for their efficacy in the cure of many diseases.” Although the Mineral Spring Garden was destroyed by fire, together with the Arch Street Brewery, on September 8, 1846, it seems little time was lost rebuilding.
There was great excitement on August 15, 1848 when the Mineral Spring Garden hosted a balloon ascension by Dr. Charles Morrill, who had already made a name for himself in Boston. For 50 cents, spectators could watch three smaller balloons rise before the main event, when Dr. Morrill would ascend in his massive balloon ‘to the region of the clouds.’ An observer noted that he floated in a northerly direction. One wonders if the spring’s hydrogen gas was used to fill the balloon.
City directories continue to show the Mineral Springs Garden as a ‘public place’ through the 1850’s and into the 1860’s. An 1857 map shows it as a small enclosed area behind the brewery. In 1863 and 1864, one William Connelly is listed as either proprietor or manager. But there is no sign of it in 1871 and a map from 1876 shows the entire block taken by the Albany Brewing Company, successor to Boyd & McCulloch. Thus quietly passed into the mists of time Albany’s claim to mineral spring fame. Did the spring dry up like its predecessor in Bath? Did the war kill the enthusiasm for mineral water? Or was it just the victim of an expanding brewing industry? Today, the Albany Mineral Spring lies dormant underneath the parking lot of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Lest we lament its loss too much, let’s hear the words of Mrs. S.S. Colt from her Tourist’s Guide Through the Empire State (1871), about a sulfur spring located in the waiting room of the railroad depot in East Albany: “It is amusing to see the faces of travelers who alight, thirsty, from the passing trains, and having never tasted anything like this water before, devoutly hope that they may never again.”
Acknowledgement: All newspaper references are from the amazing collection at fultonhistory.com